Boris Johnson has been accused of telling aides he would rather let coronavirus “rip” than impose a second lockdown, in the latest allegation levelled at the Prime Minister.
He was reported on Monday night to have argued during a Government debate in September that lockdowns were “mad” as he raised concerns about the economic harm they cause.
Downing Street described the claims in the Times as “gross distortions” of Mr Johnson’s position, as he battled a bitter briefing war that has engulfed No 10.
The allegation surfaced after a growing number of sources were reported to have told how Mr Johnson said he was prepared to let “bodies pile high” rather than order a third shutdown.
The Prime Minister said that allegation was “total rubbish”, before further details surfaced of how he is said to have paid for expensive refurbishments to his Downing Street flat.
No 10 and the Tories declined to deny an ITV report stating that the Conservative Campaign Headquarters paid the Cabinet Office to cover initial costs of the refurbishments, with Mr Johnson now repaying the party.
A Downing Street spokesman said that the “costs of wider refurbishment have been met by the Prime Minister personally”, adding: “Gifts and benefits received in a ministerial capacity are, and will continue to be, declared in transparency returns.”
But Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves said: “This is yet another panicked attempt by the Conservatives to cover up the truth behind the original donors for the luxury refurbishment of the Downing Street flat.”
Boris Johnson and his fiancee Carrie Symonds
Boris Johnson has denied he tried to stop the inquiry after a friend of his fiancee Carrie Symonds was implicated (Adam Davy/PA)
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case said the Prime Minister has asked him to review the matter, after former aide Dominic Cummings said Mr Johnson wanted donors to “secretly pay” for the work in a move which would have been “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal”.
The decision on the second lockdown last autumn was leaked and is the subject of an inquiry to find the so-called “chatty rat” who tipped off the press.
Mr Case, the UK’s most senior civil servant, declined to say whether Mr Cummings had been cleared over that leak, as the former ally has claimed when striking back at allegations from within No 10.
In the latest criticism of his handling of the coronavirus crisis, the Times reported that Mr Johnson repeatedly said he would rather “let it rip” than impose the second lockdown because restrictions would close businesses and cause job losses.
A No 10 spokesman said: “These are gross distortions of his position. Throughout this pandemic we’ve done everything we can to save lives and protect livelihoods.”
Mr Johnson ultimately announced the second lockdown for England in October, but his alleged comments are the latest to rock Downing Street amid a briefing war.
The Prime Minister was earlier accused of saying he would rather see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than order a third shutdown.
After the Daily Mail first reported the remarks, the BBC and ITV were among those to repeat the allegations, citing their own sources.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove defended Mr Johnson, telling the Commons it is “incredible” to think he would have made the remark.
Mr Gove said that “I was in that room, I never heard language of that kind”, in a defence stopping short of a full denial that the comments had been made.
Dominic Cummings was senior aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Dominic Cummings was senior aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Jonathan Brady/PA)
ITV’s report suggested Mr Johnson made the remark in his study just after he agreed to the second lockdown.
The Prime Minister, who will address his Cabinet on Tuesday, denied making the comment.
“No, but I think the important thing I think people want us to get on and do as a Government is to make sure that the lockdowns work,” he told reporters in Wrexham.
“They have, and I really pay tribute to the people of this country, this whole country of ours, really pulled together and, working with the vaccination programme, we have got the disease under control.”
Mr Case told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee it is “probable” that the culprit of the “chatty rat” leak will never be identified.
In an incendiary blog post, Mr Cummings said that Mr Case had told Mr Johnson that neither he nor the then No 10 director of communications, Lee Cain, was the culprit.
The Cabinet Secretary declined to comment on the suggestion, telling the MPs: “I am not trying to frustrate, but this is drawing me into details of an ongoing investigation which – for reasons I have set out – I can’t go into in this setting.”
Mr Cummings released his onslaught after he was accused by No 10 of a series of damaging leaks, including text message exchanges between Mr Johnson and the entrepreneur Sir James Dyson.
Ministers are now concerned at what he may say when he gives evidence to MPs investigating the Government’s response to the pandemic next month.
Mr Cummings is widely known to have been critical of Mr Johnson’s delay in launching a second lockdown in England when cases began rising last autumn, and there is speculation he will seek to blame him for the high death toll.